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The Forgotten: Grigori Kromanov's "The Dead Mountaineer's Hotel" (1979)

Irksome, dazzling, baffling, eerie, luminous, silly, turgid & unique, this Estonian detective sci-fi delights & frustrates.
Irksome, dazzling, baffling, eerie, luminous, silly, turgid and unique, The Dead Mountaineer's Hotel delights and frustrates in equal measure. It's easily the best Estonian sci-fi detective story I've ever seen. And yes, it's the only one.
I believe Isaac Asimov had some kind of rule about detective stories being difficult in science fiction because if the reader doesn't know the rules, he or she can't fairly be expected to have a chance of guessing the answer to the mystery. This film certainly falls prey to that problem, as despite its occult atmosphere it doesn't tip its hand that anything truly out-of-this-world is going on until the third act. Once we're allowed to know the secret, the film ceases to be a mystery at all and actually works a lot better.
First things: a detective arrives at the titular mountain resort, following up an anonymous tip. The hotel itself is dazzlingly designed in black with dashes of neon and pop art, including a mural of the mountaineer it's named after, looking like a cross between Che Guevara and a chimpanzee. Sven Grunberg's shimmering synth score and lots and lots of lens flare add to the off-kilter ambience.
The hotel-keeper has a pet St. Bernard that guides guests to their rooms (a lovely idea some venue should instigate for real), and everyone seems a bit odd. I have no choice but to get into spoiler territory here, but it's my contention that the film works much better once you know the surprises, so I don't feel too bad. Some of the guests are gangsters, some are robots, and some are aliens. I won't say who.
Grigori Kromanov directs with a lot of razzle-dazzle. His shots can't seem to keep still, fidgeting with the zoom like Tinto Brass circa Caligula or the Jesus Franco of Vampyros Lesbos. A shame, since whenever the frame settles, it's rather gorgeous. The rolling snowscapes create a genuinely otherworldly mood, the physiognomies of the rogues' gallery are evocative and obviously chosen with a keen caricaturist's eye, and numerous odd details of costume and production design add to the delight.
The script is by the Strugatsky brothers, of Stalker fame, based on their novel, Inspector Glebsky's puzzle, and what it offers in place of a fair-play whodunnit is, ultimately, a rather daring critique of the official mindset, something you don't necessarily expect of an Eastern European movie of the Soviet era. Glebsky, the lantern-jawed policeman hero, is completely unable to adapt to this new genre he finds himself in, and makes a series of stubborn blunders leading towards tragedy. But not before we have been treated to the sight of androids skiing uphill without skis, their alien masters clinging to their backs, the closest thing to a special effect in a fantasy that manages to make our own world seem alien and wondrous.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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